Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Only One Main Reason for College: Learning

(From the June 10, 2010 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

While waiting to take home a couple of burritos from the Tip-a-Few, I overheard a woman complaining to a friend that her daughter had to take “useless classes” in college. Why, she asked in exasperation, is a student required to take classes in history if she wants to be a nurse?

I didn’t jump in to the conversation that night, even though I’ve had many good conversations with strangers at the Tip. But perhaps I should have responded. I actually hear that comment a lot about college, that so many classes are unnecessary. Frequently my students at GVSU tell me that they are working to get their general education classes “out of the way” so they can focus on the courses in their major area of study. I always tell students who make this comment that such general education classes are not in the way, but are in fact there on purpose.

But that’s the problem. Most people have lost sight of the purpose of college. In the current economic shift, students and their parents are being told by everyone from the governor on down that a college degree is the key to a good job. That’s not entirely wrong. There is lots of data that shows employment rate and household income goes up proportionate to college education. But such a simple, albeit practical, view that “degree = job” leads to misunderstandings and missed opportunities for students.

The problem is that too many view college as mere job training as opposed to higher education. They see the curriculum as a checklist, rather than an opportunity. I actually have students ask me what electives they “have to” take (electives are courses that students can choose, or “elect,” to take that are not required for their major). These courses could be related to a chosen career path, or they could be something a student takes to satisfy general curiosity (which, by the way, may end up being related to a chosen career path). Too many people approach college as something to get through rather than something to savor.

I tell my students their college experience will be more productive and enjoyable if they approach each class with a “burnin’ yearnin’ for learnin’.” Some laugh at this. Others eventually embrace the idea. The latter are the ones who don’t ask if they “have to” read something. They read things on their own because of natural curiosity. They stay after class to talk about something not because it’s on the test but because it’s interesting. And if you think this is merely idealistic, consider this: the students with a passion for learning are also the ones who make the biggest impression when being considered for internships and jobs.

What I’m really talking about here is an old concept called “liberal education.” That’s not liberal in terms of political ideology, but related to an education in the liberal arts. Liberal can also mean a lot, as in a liberal helping of mashed potatoes. The idea is that students are not just narrowly “trained” in specific skills for a certain job, but they are broadly educated in multiple academic disciplines or subjects. The primary benefit of taking classes that some deem “not relevant” to a career is that it strengthens the mind in the same way that doing multiple exercises or “cross-training” strengthens an athlete’s muscle. Why ride a bike when you are training to run a race? Because you will be a stronger runner.

More importantly, a liberal education gets students to think beyond themselves to consider social responsibility. A good college education should prepare students not just to be a good employee, but to be a good citizen. As Peter Berkowitz of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, “liberal education supposes that while individual rights are shared equally by all, the responsible exercise of those rights is an achievement that depends on cultivating the mind.” In other words, complaining about taking “unrelated” classes is really a selfish attitude.

It’s also impractical. If I can’t convince students that being broadly educated is important for all the reasons above, I’ll stoop to the pragmatic and self-interested argument. As it turns out, in every occupation that requires a college degree, employers want to hire people who can do more than just perform basic job functions. As the saying goes, even monkeys can be trained. Employers want people who can take initiative, anticipate and adapt to change, innovate, solve problems, create new opportunities and so on. It’s not enough to be able to do a job today; you have to think for tomorrow. That requires a liberally educated mind.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is noted for saying “we make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” To paraphrase, if you see college as just classes to train you for a job, you may end up making a living. But if you approach college as an opportunity to learn, you’ll give yourself a diverse and satisfying life. That’s not a bad standard by which to live.

On the other hand, people who can’t understand the need to take courses that are not immediately connected to a job might want to choose a different anthem as a theme for their life. I’d suggest a lyric from American musician Jackson Browne, who crooned sarcastically: “I’m going to be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender.”